Princeton University’s Board of Trustees recently approved the extension of Christopher L. Eisgruber’s presidency by at least five years, citing a record of accomplishment that includes “transformational gains in student body diversity and philanthropic support, as well as historic campus expansion.” The board also praised Eisgruber for his “outspoken defense of free speech and academic freedom.”
Those who know the president’s enthusiastic embrace seven years ago of the principles of free expression, first formulated at the University of Chicago, may find this plausible. Yet in the past two years, he and his administration have taken positions and actions that plainly go against the so-called Chicago Principles. Which is why the most respected campus free speech organization in the country, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), ranked Princeton a dismal 135 out of 154 in its most recent free speech rankings of colleges and universities.
There are, however, reasons for hope—but it is despite, rather than because of, President Eisgruber.
The first concerns a formal complaint made in October by a group of eight faculty members, including myself, against officers of the university responsible for smearing and harassing a colleague of ours on an official university website, “To Be Known and Heard: Systemic Racism and Princeton University,” which was used as part of a mandatory freshman orientation last fall.
As I wrote in Tablet last month, and as various publications have been tracking for almost two years, the stellar classics professor Joshua Katz had been the target of vilification and character assassination at the university since he published a July 2020 Quillette article criticizing a long series of illegal, immoral, and plainly silly demands, made in a notorious July 4, 2020, faculty letter addressed to President Eisgruber. In the name of “anti-racism,” the letter contained items such as preferential treatment for faculty of color and the creation of a committee to monitor faculty work for possible racist content.
The entire incoming freshmen class in August 2021 was instructed by the university to shun professor Katz. The presentation, which changed the meaning of a passage in Katz’s article in Quillette by deliberately omitting crucial words, contained grossly unfair and derogatory statements, such as:
“[Katz] seems not to regard people like me [a Black professor] as essential features, or persons, of Princeton.”
“[R]ace baiting, disguised as free speech, can be deadly.”
“[Katz’s views are] fundamentally incompatible with our mission and values as educators.”
In our complaint to the university, we argued that the mistreatment of Katz by these officers was aimed directly at his protected (and in our view, accurate) speech, which has had a chilling effect on campus expression more broadly.
Two months later, Michele Minter, the vice provost for institutional equity and diversity, rejected our complaint, citing reasons that three prominent national organizations—the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA), and FIRE—agreed were truly bizarre.
Minter made the case, for example, that the webpage produced by Princeton’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion office is not actually an official university website, and that Katz’s rights had not been violated because he was not vilified on account of some “protected characteristic”—e.g., sex, color, race, or creed. She conceded that the webpage strategically omitted words from the passage he wrote, but that this was inconsequential. Minter refused to issue an official public apology to Katz.
Shortly thereafter, the new dean of faculty, Gene Jarrett, with the implicit support of President Eisgruber, confirmed Minter’s ruling. At that point, we appealed to the Committee on Conference and Faculty Appeal (CCFA), whose members are nine professors elected by the entire Princeton faculty. Our assumption was that a reversal of the Minter ruling was probably hopeless, for few would dare oppose the powerful DEI and Human Resources offices of the university.
But in a bombshell ruling last month, the CCFA issued an unprecedented rebuke to Princeton’s administration. Its members unanimously condemned the vice provost’s ruling on each count and accepted every single argument we made about its egregious errors. This decision, a ringing endorsement for academic freedom, ranks among the more significant developments in campus life today, though it remains to be seen whether Princeton’s administration will accept and act on the committee’s decision. It would be a scandal if it did not.
Which brings us back to the leadership of President Eisgruber. In his March 31 response to a letter sent to him by Keith Whittington, a professor of politics at Princeton and the chair of the academic committee of the AFA, Eisgruber took the extraordinary position that the treatment of Katz on an official Princeton website is protected by the university’s regulations. In other words, the university is free to destroy the reputation of a faculty member as long as it does so indirectly—by relying on selected, edited quotes made to make him look derogatory.
The letter to Whittington was sent before the recent unanimous CCFA ruling, which we expected would lead Eisgruber to reassess his position. Yet in response to a letter I sent him on April 20, after the ruling, he wrote that he stands by his belief “that the pertinent sections of the To Be Known and Heard website are protected under the university’s Statement on Freedom of Expression.”
The stage is now set for a serious confrontation between the president and his faculty on the meaning and application of free speech and academic freedom. The stakes are high and go well beyond the Katz case. It is no secret that ever-growing fleets of administrative bureaucrats—many operating in the name of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” but in fact promoting conformity, inequality, and exclusion—have taken over America’s educational institutions. The only contribution of the “diversicrats,” as they are colloquially known, is to muzzle faculty and infantilize students. Their overreach undermines the fundamental purposes of universities—truth-seeking scholarship and nonindoctrinating teaching.
Unfortunately, strong pushback from faculty, as in the case of Princeton, is startlingly rare. Why? Because most professors are too afraid to dissent, even mildly, from any given orthodoxy, fearing the wrath of the bullying bureaucrats who will use the university’s resources to destroy their reputations and end their careers. Not even tenure can prevent a determined administration from getting rid of faculty members it disapproves of—either by making their lives miserable until they resign or by unearthing some past perceived violation it can use to revoke their contract.
Princeton has enshrined the Chicago Principles in its legally enforceable regulations, but all too often, administrators undermine their spirit. And so we suggest looking again at the University of Chicago, this time for yet another set of academic guidelines, namely those contained in the 1967 Kalven Report, which was issued by a faculty committee charged with formulating “a statement on the University’s role in political and social action.”
According to the Kalven Report, neutrality in political and social debates is a hallmark of university life. Neither the university as a whole nor any unit therein may take an official position on public issues not directly related to the mission of the university: who should be the next president of the United States, for instance, or what the “right” verdict should be in a controversial civil or criminal trial.
At Princeton, the bureaucrats—unrestrained and in some cases even abetted by the senior leadership of the university—have created an increasingly hostile environment for freedom of thought and expression. In their zeal to promote a particular ideology—today it’s “anti-racism” and “gender fluidity,” though tomorrow it could be something else entirely—they are turning universities into dangerous spaces for those who value fact-based debate and reasoned argument.
What is to be done? Take two suggestions. First—and this is hardly controversial, though few seem to be doing anything about it—it is time to recognize the toxic effect of massive administrative bloat. The incentives of most administrators are simply not aligned with the interests of students and faculty, and too many are opposed to the principles that academic life has traditionally cherished: the disinterested quest for truth based on evidence, reasons, and arguments. Second, colleges and universities across the country should adopt some version of the Kalven Report, which rightly states that “[t]he neutrality of the university … arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.”
Respect and cherishing: These, along with freedom of speech, are things that Princeton and most other educational institutions need in much greater supply.
Sergiu Klainerman is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1987.